Doomsday Reels
Death Race 2050 (2017)



G.J. Echternkamp

Manu Bennett (Frankenstein), Malcolm McDowell (The Chairman), Marci Miller (Annie Sullivan), Burt Grinstead (Jed Perfectus), Folake Olowofoyeku (Minerva Jefferson), Anessa Ramsey (Tammy the Terrorist), Yancy Butler (Alexis Hamilton), Charlie Farrell (J.B.), Shanna Olson (Grace Tickle), D.C. Douglas (A.B.E.)


“…despite our free sterilization clinics, Americans continue to reproduce at an alarming rate.  And when we irradiated the entire population against cancer, well that was probably a huge mistake.  That means a lot of old people and a lot of children who grow up to be old people.  So let’s watch them die!  Three days to the finish line, three days of carnage from Old New York to New Los Angeles.  From sea to shining sea, more space for you and me.” – J.B.

When you think about it, the legacy of Death Race 2000 is almost more absurd than the movie itself.  Released in April of 1975, a mere two months before the release of Rollerball, both films tackled violent sports as a means of public pacification in a dystopian future run by corporations but Death Race 2000 proved to be far more popular than its much more grounded competitor.  The film was loosely based on a short story entitled “The Racer” by Ib Melchior.  The original film has a lot of technical issues (as is common with every single Roger Corman film) but filmmaker Paul Bartel put together a wonderfully silly and violent spectacle with a satirical edge that has endured to this day.  So successful was Death Race 2000 that it inspired an earthshakingly terrible pseudo-sequel, a 2008 remake which spawned two direct-to-video prequels, and a cheap 2008 knock-off by The Asylum which starred The Insane Clown Posse.  And Death Race fever still grips the direct-to-video market as Death Race: Anarchy (the remake’s third sequel) is expected sometime in 2018.

Death Race 2050 is billed as a sequel but it’s really just a more faithful remake of the first film, albeit one that’s gotten the Escape From L.A. treatment.  Once again we are in a dystopian future led by corporations, here called The United Corporations of America.  This world is a bit more fleshed out than its 1975 counterpart.  The people of America are pacified by a number of distractions such as anti-depressant spray cheese and virtual reality goggles, but the biggest draw by far is the annual Death Race.  Death Race also helps combat overpopulation, which is why the game’s rules reward points for running over pedestrians (adults are worth ten points but children and the elderly are worth significantly more.)

This year’s spate of drivers are Tammy the Terrorist (a southern-accented religious nut in an American flag outfit), Minerva Jefferson (a truly awful gangster-rapper), A.B.E. (an artificial intelligence undergoing a crisis of self), Jed Perfectus (a genetically engineered super driver with serious adequacy issues), and Frankenstein (a fan favorite who has undergone so many bloody crashes that he’s more machine than man at this point.)  A new feature of the race is a virtual reality camera on the co-pilots’ helmets which allows the viewers to feel as though they’re riding shotgun with their favorite drivers.  This year’s race will also be special because the resistance, led by radical Alexis Hamilton, is out to kill the drivers as a statement against the government.

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As I said, Death Race 2050 is a beat-for-beat remake of Death Race 2000, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Much of what worked about the original was the way it mocked politics and the consumer culture of the 1970s and if any era was ripe for satire and mockery it’s here and now.  It’s important to note that Roger Corman and director/writer G. J. Echterkamp had no idea how the 2016 election would play out or the shitshow that would follow, but they nailed the tone perfectly.

Even the beats that are repeated are done so in a way that feels different enough to not be annoying.  The scene from the first film where Frankenstein ran down the nurses and doctors of a hospital who left its older and disabled patients out for “Euthanasia Day” is replace with a group of parents and teachers leaving out some handicapped kids to boost test scores.  Frankenstein’s reactions to the resistance trap and his fan club waiting out to help him score points are entirely different and the feud between the two lady-drivers is entirely different this time.

The drivers mostly have 1:1 comparisons with Tammy filling Mathilda the Hun’s radical psychotic role, Minerva filling in for Calamity Jane Kelly’s role of a driver who later shows sympathetic qualities, and Jed Perfectus filling Machine Gun Joe’s role as the insecure and petty self-styled rival of Frankenstein.  A.B.E. is the most original creation of the new film but he still fills Nero’s role of being the first to be set upon by the resistance and of being the least interesting character in the movie.

The shared dynamic of both films is the relationship between Frankenstein (David Carradine in the original, Spartacus and Arrow’s Manu Bennett here) and Annie (Simone Griffith in the original, Marci Miller now).  As before, Annie is a resistance plant meant to facilitate Frankenstein’s death but the nature of the resistance is different and far less sympathetic in this movie than it was in the original and Annie’s ties to it seem far less enthusiastic.

The character of Frankenstein has also changed.  Carradine’s Frankenstein was secretly against the race, a man created for the job who had grown to hate everything he had become.  His goal was to win the race so that he could assassinate the president using a grenade concealed in his robotic hand.  Bennett’s Frankenstein is a much more complex creature.  He has no designs on stopping the government as he sees the whole world to be inherently corrupt from the ground up, killing Malcolm McDowell’s chairman would do nothing to save the world and the entire thing deserves to be burned down and built back up anyhow.  Instead Frankenstein is focused on winning the race because it’s the only thing that makes sense in this mad world, but he doesn’t go out of his way to be cruel like the other drivers and has a strong fondness for animals.

As a result of the changes the characters’ relationship works better.  Since neither Annie nor Frankenstein are a symbol of moral right they feel a lot more human.  Annie particularly is a much more likeable character than her 70s counterpart and Manu Bennett’s twitchy anti-social Frankenstein shares more characteristics with Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky than with David Carradine’s aloof sex symbol.  It creates a more interesting character dynamic as well, where Frankenstein is the childish one and Annie is the bemused adult.

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One can hardly call Death Race 2000 subtle in its social commentary but Death Race 2050 is even more in-your-face with its jokes.  I compared this movie to Escape From L.A. for a reason.  The film doesn’t dwell too much on ugly American stereotypes, preferring to focus more on the systems that help and encourage that sort of behavior.  It’s not sympathetic for the people watching the race but it also doesn’t really blame them for becoming what they are.  This keeps the ending from feeling as nihilistic as it could, but I don’t necessarily consider that to be a problem.

The one tonal shift that feels the strangest is Minerva’s hidden depth.  Minerva acts like a self-obsessed ass for most of the movie until about the midway point when she and Annie share a scene.  The weirdness of the fact that the two of them are even talking to each other is lampshaded by a sign in the bar set proclaiming that the place is called “Bechdel’s Bar.”  It’s a weirdly deep scene in an intentionally shallow movie but it does serve to give both Minerva and Annie some time to grow as characters.  It is a nice touch having Minerva’s abrupt shift in character be the result of an act she puts on for her public persona but it’s still a moment that comes out of nowhere.  It is still surprising that this movie’s few moments of attempted gravitas work curiously well.

The showpieces of the film are really Tammy and Perfectus.  Both Anessa Ramsey and Burt Grinstead are wonderfully rubber-faced comedic actors that really know how to chew scenery.  Ramsey delivers her lines to the back of the house and almost every face she makes is worthy of a screen capture, she has the southern zealot role nailed down.  Grinstead gets all the best material as Perfectus is all the subtext of Sylvester Stallone’s Machine Gun Joe brought out into the open.  He’s essentially Dennis from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (with maybe a bit of Mac mixed in) in a dystopian wasteland and he steals every moment he appears onscreen.

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The film even manages to outdo its predecessor on action.  This movie has a lot more gore than the original and the fight scenes are worlds better, particularly the homoerotic confrontation between Frankenstein and Perfectus.  There are some dodgy CG effects but there were some very dodgy practical effects in the original so it’s really no worse.

Death Race 2050 is direct-to-video schlock but that’s really the only way a Death Race movie should ever be presented.  The entire concept falls apart the moment you try to make it serious.  This is the first Roger Corman picture in ages to feel like one of his cult films from the ’70s or ’80s G.J. Echternkamp perfectly captured the tone and fun of the original.  If you didn’t like the original, this one definitely isn’t going to change your mind but for everyone else this is Death Race done right.

Death Race 2050 is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon Instant. It is also currently on Netflix.

“Not everything has to be about something.”

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